"I am Tiger Woods"

tiger-woodsWhen I was at Inman, I believe it was Dottie Herman (although I realize that Altos Research attributes the quote to Burke Smith) who said “Technology won’t replace agents, agents with technology will replace agents“. Regardless of the source, it’s a great quote! That remark struck a chord with me. Except there’s one small problem… There’s not enough “real” technology vendors out there! Let me explain further…

OK, at one end of the Real Estate 2.0 spectrum, you have Zillow, Move, & Trulia. They use cool technology to sell advertising in the Real Estate market. Nothing wrong with that. Being a ‘softie alumni perhaps I’m a bit too set in my ways to fully appreciated the size of the opportunity these fine companies are going after. After all, MS only has a 10% share of the $500 billion/year enterprise IT market. But Google, probably only has a 1% share of the $3 TRILLION/year advertising market. Maybe those numbers are off, but it feels like a good Zestimate to me. Clearly there’s a lot money to made from the death of print media and these guys are at grave yard with their shovels ready. More power to them I say.

At the other end of the Real Estate 2.0 spectrum, you have HouseValues, HomeGain & others. They try to use technology to lure in and sell leads. It’s not my cup of tea, and some people don’t like them, but there’s nothing wrong with that business model either.

But where are the companies that use technology to just sell technology? When I look at the MLS search offerings of my future competitors like Birdview, Wolfnet, Superlative, Logical Dog, and literally a cast of thousands etc, I just cry and smile. The maps are non-existent or very Web 1.0-ish. RSS or KML? What’s that? Foreign langauge support? Is English considered a foreign language yet? Data Visualization? You gotta be joking. Page speed? Maybe if you measure performance with a calendar. And I haven’t even talked about half of the things I want to see or invent in a world class MLS search tool.

Granted, my game still needs a lot more work as well. Zearch is English only still, there’s more to data visualization than pretty Zillow charts, I really have no idea of how bad I scale yet (better than reply.com I hope, otherwise I know I’ll never hear the end of it), and I only support the NWMLS right now, but on the whole I’m feeling pretty optimistic about my chances on the pro tour.

Picture this scenario, here I am, John Q Homebuyer, getting my Zillow fix, Moving around the web, and being Trulia impressed with all this Real Estate 2.0 stuff, and then I click on your ad. I goto your web site, I wanna search for homes (because frankly that’s why people visit your site, unless you’re a famous blogger) and do you know what happens next? It’s reminds me of the guy going for a test drive in the new Volkswagen radio ads.

“This broker’s web site has 3 speeds, and this one is disappoinment. Web site, honk if you suck *honk* Take me to a RealTech or Caffeinated web site”

FYI – I’m leaving out RedFin because there are an exception to this generalization. They are a broker that has developed great technology in house and they are keeping it all to themselves (punks ;)). So most other brokers can’t really compete with them technologically speaking unless they partner with a technology vendor (like RealTech or myself).

I mean, we have all these “consumer portal” companies doing interesting work, empowering consumers, and then when I visit the broker’s or agent’s web site for the full story, it’s a total and complete let down. There’s over 1 million agents in the this country, and probably only a 1000 agents that have web sites worth visiting (I suspect half of which are regular Rain City Guide readers), and hardly anyone with compelling MLS search tools. It feels like all the good software engineers involved with this industry want to sell it an ad or a lead, instead of a killer web site. Maybe the industry needed a few well funded and very talented start-ups to smack it around to finally wake up and smell the software? (sniff, aaaahh, Firefox fresh scent, yummy)

Clearly there’s a big opportunity for developing a good MLS search tool for this industry. Maybe not Zillow, Microsoft or Google sized, but it’s big enough to make me interested in going for it. I’m pretty excited at the thought of all the possibilities, personally.

This is why I cry and smile. I cry because I feel my clients pain. They just want a cool web site to capture leads so they can get off the advertising & lead buying treadmill, and finding a good one is just about impossible. I cry because I feel the home buyers pain. This stuff should be so much better than it is. Many brokers have the money and are willing to do something about it, but it just looks like the current set of vendors serving them are developing products like it’s web circa 1999. I smile, because I’m in a position to do something about this. I feel like a Tiger. Here’s how I break things down on the links…

Jack Nicklaus is still winning most of the major tournaments these days, but he’s the one whose records I wish to break. RealTech has done some real nice work w/ John L Scott, CB Bain (did you guys do CatalistHomes? It looks like your work, but I don’t see your brand anywhere?). He has a few years of a head start over me, and is probably in process of making his other clients very happy. I hope that Zearch will eventually be as well regarded as the work you’ve done.

But after Jack, I can’t see anybody else out on the course improving their game. Maybe they are all down at the club house sipping some buds? Maybe they think the mine field of MLS downloading rules and methods will keep their market shares safe from technology disruptors (and to be honest, they are partly right – I wouldn’t be crazy enough to take this on if I wasn’t so convinced that I could build a much better set of web tools than most of the vendors I’ve discovered). Maybe they’ve never read Andy Grove’s “Only the Paranoid Survive“? But if this industry embraces RETS (or better yet, screw the SOAP and let me get dirty w/ the MLS’s SQL Servers), I suspect a few names on the MLS/IDX web site industry leaderboard will change.

But how can any vendor support all 900+ MLSes in this country! This is a monster challenge, even for a Tiger. We’re talking a 600 yard, Par 3 sized challenge here folks. Sorry, but even Tiger’s Nike golf equipment can’t par that hole. I’ll suspect I’ll just refine my game on the local links until I get really good. (If Dustin would only give me the connection string to Realtor.com’s SQL cluster it would all be so much easier. ;)) Oh well, if I gotta play the game one hole at a time, that’s the way I gotta play. Just keep making pars, make a birdie here or there, no bogeys, and watch the other players fall apart like a Sunday afternoon during a major. I dunno, but it’s starting to feel like the 2nd round of the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach to me.

I’m working out, I’m going to a swing coach, I’m sinking my putts, I’m killing balls on the driving range, and more imortantly, I’m feeling a little faster, stronger, & smarter with each passing week. So all you other players, better step up your game. Tiger’s turning pro soon. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but soon. And when he does, the game of real estate will not be the same.

Except for Jack, I wouldn’t worry about him too much. We’ve all seen the green jackets in his closet. 🙂

I know Ubertor’s got game, but I consider them more of a Michael Jordon type player. Great stuff, but he plays a different sport than we do. So Mr. Agent & Ms. Broker, are there any good MLS/IDX vendors out there whose game impresses you? (Other than Jack’s & Tiger’s of course?)

14 thoughts on “"I am Tiger Woods"

  1. Robbie, I don’t play golf, nor do I write code, but I appreciate the elegance of your metaphors. Upon reading your post, I see that there may be a difference in understanding of the game and its rules. You, as a real estate software designer, admire the wonderful map search and mash-ups created by other coders. You lament the lack of real estate agent websites and look forward to a time when all agents have cool sites with Web 2.0 mapping technologies on them. But what you don’t understand is that real estate sales is still a cult of personality. It’s still about who you know, not search technology, speed or data visualization. It’s still about who you’re married to, what social circle you’re in, what clubs you belong to and what non-profits you support. Not totally, not 100%, but often.

    Since real estate is local, let’s look at two of the top producers on the Eastside, the tech hub of the Pacific Northwest.

    Wendy Lister of Coldwell Banker Bain, currently has 31 listings, all over $1 million dollars, 24 over $2 million dollars. Personal website? No. She has an office-provided page on the company site: http://www.wendylister.com

    Breffni McGeough, of Windermere, has 34 listings over $1 million dollars, and he even has one for $29 million dollars. Personal website? No. He also has a company provided website, http://www.breffni.com

    In their defense, they own their own domain names, but they all are forwarded to a page on the company site. Clearly, their clients don’t care if they have the coolest web sites with the latest mapping software. These homes are sold at cocktail parties and charity auctions and out on the golf courses you so love. You don’t like it, maybe I don’t like it. But that’s the name of the game. And I’m guessing it will be for a very long time…..

  2. Marlow,

    For the sake of full disclosure, I don’t play golf either. The courses I play on are much more likely to have castles & windmills, than sand traps & bunkers. However, I’m a Tiger fan and enjoy watching him on red shirt Sunday during a major. I think I felt a little inspired by Ardell’s “Frank”-speak on “broads” post when I was using my metaphors. 🙂

    Anyway, back to your real point. You are very correct in that who you know, is often more important than what you know. The same is true in many business sectors, not just real estate. For example, I know if I didn’t first contact Dustin back in October of last year and started blogging shortly thereafter, you & I would not be having this conversation!

    I think often times, after a business reaches a certain scale, you achieve more success by just being successful in the past (and not because you really earned it). A consumer will choose the path of least resistance because of the “brand equity” the business has built.

    Both of these agents you mentioned, appear to have over 20 years of experience, probably have the support staff of a “Super Agent”, have a long enough former client list that they can afford to not be innovative or market themselves aggressively (don’t know if that’s really true or not, but I never heard of Breffni prior to your response and only heard of Wendy because I was curious who listed that $40 million Mercer Island property I always see when I’m testing my Zearch code).

    Regardless of their past & current success, I see no reason why *I’d* want to do business with them. I did business with a “Super Agent” once when I purchased my first home, and I wouldn’t do it again. The support staff did most of the work, and when we were looking for a house, she was always talking to her other clients on her cell phone instead of us. What’s really ironic, is her tag line is “Leading the way with innovative technology!” and her site is anything but. After the experience, I felt I got more personalized service from a McDonald’s drive thru. (Speaking of which, why do they always run out of boy’s toys before running out of girl’s toys when they do happy meal promotions? Harrison has 3 Polly Pocket dolls now because of this!).

    When I purchased my second home, it was a different story. It was with a less experienced agent (who I met via the BNI chapter I used to belong to), who worked much harder, staged our home, sold it fast, and gave us her full attention. Needless to say, my opinion of her is much higher, despite her lack of prior success. Her site, is just a personalized iHouse template w/ a Superlative MLS search. It’s not innovative either, but I’m not holding it against her (at least she’s trying, given her IT budget is near $0 and appears to be just starting out.). In fact, I’d even recommend her if I wasn’t a Rain City regular and surrounded by “real estate greatness” on a daily basis.

    Real Estate is a big world, there are a million ways to be successful. If you can make a living by golfing with the rich and the powerful, lucky you. If you can get noticed by advertising on shopping carts, advertising on Zillow, buying leads, blogging, or being a technology innovator, that’s good too. Find your part of the long tail and go after it, I say.

    However, it’s a mistake to confuse success & market share with innovation, growth, & mind share. For example, in tech, HP & IBM are both about 10 times the size of Google & Apple. But nobody gets excited talking about Big Blue any more. I respect innovation (in all it’s forms) far more than success. The first million is always the hardest and after your business gets to a certain size, I think you just have to “not screw up” in order to be remain successful.

    It’s important to remember that the expectations and the demographics of tomorrow’s homebuyer are different than yesterday’s. And if you’re new to the industry, how should you attract clients? Would you recommend everybody stop blogging and start golfing? Maybe they should combine the best of both approaches and attend video game championships instead?

  3. Ah, it all sounds so familiar to me. Several years back, myself and a a crew of well intended coders who understood the industry and had the swords at ready and a product that would be a revolution in the way agents and brokers did business on the web. Great search, killer customer relationship management tools, the magic bullet of lead generation, a sweet suite of web based applications to be sure.

    This hearty band of do-gooders didn’t take a few things into consideration. We couldn’t, hard as we tried, manage the MLS mine fields. We also found out real quick that our REAL potential market was so small, that even if we managed to get 80% market share, it wouldn’t support anything more than a small cottage business.

    I would guess that the folks at Redfin gave some thought to how they could sell their technology and concept into the market. Instead they decided it would make more sense to build a business model around it and penetrate the market from the inside, as a broker.

    I’m not pouring cold water on your passion. Swing away Tiger. I just know that after having been on the senior tour a while. There are better opportunities for me to sell the players in the gallery a great driver that takes off enough strokes to be a solid return on investment and help them get that much closer to winning their local tournaments.

  4. Robbie-

    Couldn’t agree with you more. To me, the last three paragraphs in your response to Marlow, says it all. IMHO, in real estate and in our society in general, the definition of success seems to be wrapped up in the cloak of how much money you make & market share, rather than the impact you have on others due to your business or personal dealings–ie, super agents that do nothing for you as in your personal example. Unfortunately, in real estate some of the first thoughts that comes to peoples mind are “how many deals does he/she close or what’s the gross commissions earned.” Really, the question to ask yourself is “how is my business impacting the very last transaction I was involved in.” If you left the business you are in today, would the “waves of your wake” have an impact on those you previously served?

    Tech., innovation & building satisfied clients are all important ingredients for success in any business at every level.

    PS. a perfect example of the impact I discuss (“waves of your business wake”) was having Dustin’s site down over the weekend. His impact on our small business and others is probably underestimated on his part.

  5. It appears that the gap between what we now have to use and what we need as brokers is about as wide as the gap between Seattle and the Hamptons. So is the understanding of the industry leadership as they clutch onto their existing MLS, even though the usefulness is wilting quickly.
    The main point I come away with is that we (real estate brokers/companies/agents) are not satisfying the consumers with our technology offerings. We are still stuck in this self promotion shell game, trying to trick consumers into using us and only us. Agents scream and cry about the lack of customer and client loyalty, while they do so little to earn it. Agents who say “buyers are liars and sellers are worse” are showing their true colors and will be left in the dust.
    The other point I come away with is that some of these new real estate sites (z,t,rf,etc) ARE providing consumers what they want; sexy, colorful, interactive sites that make the brokerage industry look like old farts in the process. The problem is that some of these non-broker sites (especially z) are causing collateral damage with their approaches, leaving brokers to explain and defend their value as well as descrepencies in valuations- AND these non-broker sites are enjoying a honeymoon period with no accountability for their information. That will change as lawsuits start to mount.

  6. Michael (Price),

    It’s been said that the nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from. 😉 But yeah, I’m hoping that RETS clears away the MLS minefield because otherwise, you’re right and I’ll just be playing local tournaments.

    Fortunately, at least there is awareness of the problem (which I suspect wasn’t the case a few short years ago). Hopefully the NAR or local brokers, can force their MLS into supporting it. It’s for their own good because it will lower the cost of software development, which will in turn lower the industry’s IT costs. It also good for the vendors because the bigger the market we can sell our products into, the more we can invest back into R&D.

    Right now, we have the worst of both worlds. Most agents/brokers have no real choice in vendors and forced to deal with lesser products, and most vendors aren’t seeing the return on investment they need in order to grow and improve. It seems only the billion dollar brokers can afford great technology. It shouldn’t be that expensive because the market is big enough to support an industry if it was organized properly.

    I hope it happens sooner, rather than later for the good of the industry though. Otherwise, we’ll all be using Trulia instead of the MLS and I’ll just be selling expensive consulting time to a few instead of an inexpensive product to the masses.

    I think the biggest service realtor.com could provide the industry, is become the national MLS and be the de-facto standard. We get rid of all crap we application vendors have to deal with it. Each local MLS would sync with realtor.com schema & data and the MLS would no longer control the schema (just the access to it and the data). That way each local MLS could do what they do today (control access), we have one national standard (yeah), and realtor.com will have a workable server load because only 900 MLS accounts will have access to the server.

    Or Dustin could just give me the connection string and allow me past the firewall. 😉

    Truthfully, I think Trulia & Zillow are going to inflict more pain before things get better.

  7. As I said, I may not like the fact that social connections may be just as important as technological relevance, but I was just stating my observations. Personally, I’m hedging my bets and trying to develop both!

  8. To answer the original question, “So Mr. Agent & Ms. Broker, are there any good MLS/IDX vendors out there whose game impresses you?”


    Those that have map search are woefully slow, and the interfaces are not intuirive. 1ParkPlace has a pretty nice registration/no registration set up, and a decent back end. It’s probably the best I’ve seen. Alas, it has no map based search and more importantly doesn’t work with my MLS (very few do, mainly because my MLS doesn’t play well with others).

    The IDX my MLS does provide is horrific.

    Why can’t I have a speedy map AND text based search with a USER intutive interface? Is that really asking so much?

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  10. To be honest, there’s nothing wrong with the MLS system besides the fact there are too many different schemas, too many different access mechanisms, too many different access policies, not enough MLS server power to meet existing demand (much less future demand) of application vendors, and too many different display rules (assuming you can actually manage to get the MLS data onto your server). If you can fix those problems and I suspect you’ll have software engineers & web designers beating a path to your door. 🙂

    It’s obvious there’s a big enough demand for the stuff, if vendors could just be profitable at supplying it at the price the market wants to pay. Unfortunately, the barriers to entry are too high, so you pay the price.

    Otherwise, you gotta do what CB Bain & John L did (Pay big $$ for software engineers as consultants) or do what RedFin did (pay medium $$ for software engineers as employees).

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